I talked with an old friend recently. She is now on the academic ‘job market’ after finishing her PhD over a year ago. I was in a similar situation to her a few years back and I know how incredibly stressful and all-consuming it can be.
So stressful, in fact, that I pretty much gave up on it after around a year and a half (probably a similar point to where she’s at now). I still don’t know if it was the right decision or not. After all, you spend around four years researching/writing intensely, going to conferences, teaching, etc. That’s a lot of experience and work to just throw out the window. And that’s essentially what you’re doing because, aside from the usual corporate-speak about ’transferable skills’ etc., in truth your experience and expertise is rooted in a tiny area that maybe a few dozen people on the planet care about.
At least, that was true in my case. I found that, afterward, I pretty much had to let go and forget a lot of what I knew. Of course, so much of it does carry on and is useful in subtle ways, but the details about your field, the things that you become so wrapped up in when writing a PhD, are lost to the wind. It’s not like I can even bring them up in casual conversation, never mind a job interview. They are really gone.
The thing was, I felt so relieved to be out of it. Whenever I wonder about whether it was the right decision or not, I cling to that feeling. Maybe it’s just a sign of weakness on my part, but every now and then I do get reminded of all the reasons I gave up on it.
In our conversation, my friend told me that during the summer she had decided to email her C.V. and a covering letter to a bunch of universities in the hope that someone could at least throw here a few part-time teaching hours. It sounded like a good idea to me. In most fields it would demonstrate a bit of initiative and drive, surely the same is true in academia? Turned out, it wasn’t. One academic reported her to their HR department, and she received and email from them saying how inappropriate her query was.
One thing I remember about the whole academic job-search process was the silence. You can spend a week working to tailor your C.V. and portfolio to a specific organisation’s needs or an on-going research project, and then never hear anything from them. And then you do it another 20 times, and you maybe get one response just stating that you’re not successful. I never received a single piece of feedback, positive or negative, even after the couple of interviews I had. Nothing. Just silence. That silence can be terrifying. It makes you constantly question yourself, constantly revise what you think, how you present your work to the world, until eventually you’re not really an ‘academic’ or a ‘researcher’ any more, just a thing that is trying to fit into some kind of mould, any mould will do, as long as it has an institutional affiliation.
So that silence, while probably a practical necessity from the perspective of departments receiving hundreds (sometimes thousands) of applicants per position, can be so damaging and counter-productive (from the broader perspective of research and higher-education). It doesn’t help produce good academics or good job candidates.
As bad as the silence is, however, I really couldn’t believe a university academic/HR department had the nerve to write to her and tell her that her application was ‘inappropriate’. It’s cruel and petty. At some level I can understand it; there isn’t much room for solidarity in a field where most are struggling to keep their head above the water. And HR departments aren’t staffed by academics (at least, not yet), so maybe they don’t fully understand all that goes into academia and the gruelling job search (although, it’s not like gruelling job-searches are unique to academia, so they probably should still have cut her some slack). The academic, though, should have known better. They could have at least ignored the application, just pushed ‘send to trash’ on their email client. It would be so simple.
The whole story makes the silence feel like a blessing in retrospect, which is just sad.